Cinema Insights & Cinema Psychology - March 2018
By Nigel Cooper
I actually wrote this blog back in 2005, but it is just as relevant today and as I never published it on my site I thought I’d take the time to re-write it and publish it now.
Back in 2005 I went to my local Cineworld cinema in Huntingdon to see the film Meet the Fockers staring Robert De Niro, Ben Stiller and Dustin Hoffman (in hindsight I have no idea why I went to see this particular movie, I must have been pretty bored and desperate for entertainment). Whilst I was sitting there watching the trailers I had an idea for what I thought would make an interesting article, well, what you’re about to read is more a small collection of thoughts regarding cinemagoers really.
Surely the projectionist is the final part of the feature film production?
I am fascinated with the cinema for many reasons, but I also hate going to the cinema for many reasons too. Allow me to try and explain the former. Most movie producers and directors will tell you that the editor/finisher is the final part of the feature film production, which I can understand, up to a point, but I have to retort. I believe that the cinema projectionist is the final part of the feature film production, why? Well let’s pause to think about it for a minute. The process of making any feature-length movie is as wide as it is deep. There is research is done, the script is written, locations are found, actors are cast, a director shouts Lights, Camera, Action, the film is shot, developed and edited and finally a master is run off – and that’s just the tip of the iceberg, I’ve left a whole ton of stuff out. At this point nobody has seen the film hence the whole fantasy has yet to be realized. Of course, the director and producer and various other people would have seen the movie, but the public hasn’t, and in my opinion that makes the movie incomplete, certainly as far as the cinema-going public are concerned, which brings me to the final part of the production, the Projectionist.
So, what happens next? A whole bunch of 35mm film masters are run off and distributed to cinemas across the world (usually America first if they were made in Hollywood), it is here that the cinema projectionist puts the final touches onto the production. He/she has many things to do before the film is ready for showing. Many people might be shocked to learn that even at this late stage there is still editing to be done.
When a master is delivered to the cinema it comes on 5 or 6 individual reels – depending on the film’s duration – in large flat round tins. The reels are each 22 minutes in duration, hence 5 reels equates to a 1 hour 40 minute movie. It’s the projectionist’s job to edit these reels together so that they play seamlessly. The projectionist has to splice/edit the trailers into the head of the main feature film too. So you can see that the final stages of the production are still going on even a few hours before the film is shown at your local cinema. The projectionist also has to take care of the audio, again that has to be put together seamlessly so that the sound and picture are in prefect sync and so the sound doesn’t jump or that there are no popping sounds during the joins. The reel changes also have to be frame-accurate otherwise the sound wont link up right and it could be out of sync with the images. The cutting desk where all the splicing takes place actually resembles a 35mm film-editing suite, only there are no video monitors. The projectionist literally has to cut, using a blade, the film in various places to take care of all this. Prior to the films showing on the day, the projectionist will have to come in first thing in the morning and strike up all the bulbs on the projectors to make sure they are all running properly and everything has to be spotlessly clean as even the smallest speck of dust can damage the 35mm film. So a large part of the projectionist's job is cleaning the projector and the various parts of machinery for both the audio and the film. All this prepping of the equipment is vital to prevent problems occurring during the film showing. I spoke to Paul Sweeney who is the Duty Manager at Huntingdon Cineworld about various problems that can occur. He told me a story about a ‘brain-wrap’ ¬– this is where the film gets trapped in the brain center, which is a metal section that feeds the film into the top of the projector – during the premiere of the movie Castaway featuring Tom Hanks. The brain-wrap occurred about 10 minutes before the end and all the audience could see was a large ball of fire on the screen. In this instance the audience never got to find how the film ended for Tom Hanks’s character. To make things worse the film was linked (interlocked) between two screens simultaneously and both theatres were packed out. All the staff could do was apologise and give everybody free tickets to the following evenings performance.
According to Paul, most people understand that technical problems can occur, though on the odd occasion people ask why they cant simply rewind the video a few minutes and hit play again, thinking that the source is some kind of industrial version of a domestic VCR or DVD player. Apparently, if a brain-wrap occurs, it takes an age to feed the film back in and get the projector up and running again. Also, you cant physically stop a film once it has started, well you can, but then it takes around 30 minutes to get the film back to the place where it was. So, whenever a brain-wrap occurs they will usually boot everybody out and apologise as it just takes too damn long to set everything up and get the large projection machines running again.
Huntingdon’s Cineworld has six full-time projectionists who are there all day long, so it’s not a case of a projectionist turning up 10 minutes before a showing and hitting ‘play’ on a DVD player – far from it. I hope I haven’t shattered anybody’s romantic illusions of a projectionist being an old man hunched up in the corner of a small dark room with a mug of coffee, a stack of magazines and a cigarette hanging out of the corner of his mouth. It’s far from the scenes out of the movie, Cinema Paradiso.
So, once all the splicing, editing, cleaning, prepping and loading up of the film and audio has been carried out and the audience has filled the theatre, the projector and peripheral pieces of equipment are set in motion – now that’s what I call the final part of the feature film production process, not the editor, but the projectionist, without whom we would not see the film.
Okay, now lets move out of the projection room and into the theatre itself. Here’s a question for you. When you go to the cinema, where do you sit? in the front row? right at the back? to the sides? or bang in the center in row 14? If you answered yes to the latter then you’re an intelligent budding movie director or you’re somebody who appreciates movies, or more importantly, the composition of the shots in the movie. You’re serious about movies and how you perceive them; allow me to explain in a little more detail.
Cinema-going is a democratic process. It’s not supposed to be, but it is. Next time you go to the cinema take a close look around at your fellow cinema-goers. Let’s start with those who chose to sit in the very back row. This is where your chavs and couch potatoes chose to sit. I know, I can’t generalise too much here and I’m not suggesting for one moment that everybody who sits in the back row is a chav or a couch potato. But chavs and couch potatoes chose to sit way back in the back row to put the screen as far away from them as is physically possible so that the cinema screen will appear to be about the same size as their beloved television set at home.
Next take a long hard look at the people occupying the front row; these guys and girls are the sensation adrenaline junkies, looking more for visceral interaction and thrills over the director of photography’s composition, or insightful characters. Then you’ve got the rest of the audience who are out for an evening’s entertainment. Finally, there are a select few people like myself – and maybe you too – who choose to sit about two thirds of the way up the seating, typically about row 12 to 14 in your average cinema, depending on it’s size, and as close to the centre of the screen as possible, definitely not off to one side. I chose this seating position because that’s where the Director of Photography shoots for during the filming of the movie and whoever is sitting in those few seats (there are typically about 12 seats on average, four seats wide in a three-row cluster a two thirds of the way up from the screen) is essentially looking through the viewfinder of the Panavision film camera. If, however, you arrive at the cinema only to find that those seats have gone, then either those people have read this article or they are intellectual filmgoers who appreciate good composition.
Back in 1984 when I was a teenager I went to see the film Terminator featuring our Austrian muscle-bound friend Arnold Schwarzenegger in London’s West End. I went with my older brother and his (then) rather scatty girlfriend who insisted that we sit in the front row – she claimed the view is much better there. For me, it was the worst cinematic experience of my life; my head was constantly panning from left to right like a Tawny Owl scanning for prey from it’s tree perch, or like a ball-boy watching tennis from the edge of the net. It gave me a headache and totally ruined the film for me. I couldn’t take in the whole movie and I couldn’t appreciate the DoP’s (director of photography) composition as I could only take in about a third of the screen at any one time, the rest of the screen being taken in, just, by my peripheral vision.
Back then I had no interest in filmmaking or video production, however, I did appreciate a good film and I liked to view them from a prime seating position somewhere in the center section of the theatre, hence, the next evening I went back to that very same cinema to watch the film for a second time, only this time from row 14. On this second viewing I could appreciate the work of the Director of Photography as well as Arnie’s award-winning acting skills, okay, maybe that last one was pushing the point a little too much.
The End Credits
Okay so you have the best seat in the house, you’ve thoroughly enjoyed the film (or not), so what now, ah yes – The End Credits. So what do you do at this point? Do you sit there and watch them right to the end or do you jump out of your seat and hustle your way out with the other human traffic in a race to get out of the car park first? I’m hoping you’re like me and sit and wait until the end credits have finished and there is only you, me, and a few other discerning cinemagoer remaining with a cleaner standing somewhere near the first row looking at his/her watch waiting for you to get up and leave. I sit there and read every single one of those credits, right down to the final ‘Filmed on Panavision cameras and lenses’ (or Arri cameras, RED cameras, whatever) and the Dolby Digital logos etc, why? RESPECT, that’s right, a lot of people pulled together in a mass-collaboration and put in a lot of hard work and effort over a long period of time to bring me that film so the least I can do is have the common decency to sit their and read their names. Also, it’s quite common these days for an extra little treat to be put in after the final credits have rolled. Actually, this has been going on for quite a long time now, but those who get up and rush out of the cinema the moment it fades to black would never know this. I remember watching the movie Ferris Bueller's Day Off and after the very last credit had rolled Ferris Bueller, played by Matthew Broderick, walked back onto screen and started telling the audience (well, the very few that would still be seated at this point, which would be hardly any) that the movie was over, to go home, get out of here, etc. It was a funny scene. More recently I saw the movie, Black Panther, where something similar happened, but only me and three over cinemagoers got to see this little Easter egg scene that had been dropped in by the editors after the very end credits had rolled.
I’m into filmmaking and video production as I owned/ran a video production company for about ten years, so I also like to see who the crewmembers and various other people are who collaborated on the film. So if you’re the kind of person who jumps up the split-second the final scene fades to black without even bothering to wait for the first credit to roll (never mind the last), next time you go to the cinema spare a thought for all the hard work and effort of those involved in the massive collaboration required to make the film in the first place, along with the millions of dollars (or pounds) that the film cost to make, and have the decency and respect to sit there and read their names. Believe me, runners, best boys, focus pullers and grips have a very tough job, which usually involves getting up before the birds have even stirred. Besides, I think you will enjoy the experience of not being hoarded out with the other human traffic, instead, after reading through the credits (or even pretending to or just glancing at the odd credit here and there) you can take great pleasure in leaving the cinema four minutes later, all by yourself (or with your partner), walking through the empty corridors and hallways and into the empty foyer, receiving only a brief look of confusion from the ticket collector as you make your way out into the now empty car park. It’s so much more relaxing this way, and, you never know, you might even get to see one of those extra clips that they sometimes stick in right after the final credit.
The Deluxe Screen
Next up, if your local cinema has a Deluxe Screen might I suggest that you use it. Sure, it might cost you a few pounds more, but it will be money well spent. You will enjoy the experience so much more. For starters you get a bigger more comfortable chair with more legroom. Its generally much tidier too and you wont have to step in damp patches of Coca Cola or sit in a pile of popcorn left behind from the Brady Bunch who were occupying the seats during the previous showing. The deluxe screen will have more in common with a premiere film showing at Cannes as opposed to merely another visit to the cinema to see the latest flick. In my local cinema you can even enjoy a prawn cocktail before the performance, now that’s what I’m talking about – you’ll feel like an executive at a movie premier. Besides, it costs millions of dollars to make a film so what's an extra couple of pounds in the grand scheme of things?
So that’s it, my thoughts on the projectionist and cinemagoers. I hope you found this little blog insightful and I sincerely hope you’ll remember some of my pointers next time you go to see the latest blockbuster at your local cinema.